Can Acupuncture Help My Senior Pet?

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Senior pets typically have more than one ailment or injury that requires extra attention. As our pets age, they may also become more anxious, their appetite may decrease, and they may not respond as well to medications that have previously been effective. In other senior pets, we want to avoid certain medications due to sensitive gastrointestinal tracts or organ dysfunction (for example, liver and kidney failure). Acupuncture can be a wonderful addition to our senior pet’s treatment regimen in many of these cases.


Veterinary acupuncture is a method of treatment that has been used by Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners for over 3,000 years. Over these years, it has been modified, improved, studied, and translated to Traditional Veterinary Chinese Medicine. Acupuncture involves inserting very small needles into specific acupuncture points to help the body’s own complex regulatory systems balance themselves. Each acupuncture point has a special function and via the body’s neuroendocrine system, can send messages to the brain. It is most widely recognized as a beneficial tool for pain control for injuries and arthritis, but acupuncture can also assist in many other disease and aging processes. For example, acupuncture can help stimulate blood flow to the kidneys in older dogs and cats with chronic renal disease, it can provide a calming and anti-anxiety effect in senior dogs, and it can help improve our Quality of Life indicators (appetite, energy level, sleep cycles, etc).

How it Works

Many studies have focused on proving the effects of acupuncture in modern scientific terms. Acupuncture points have been studied under the microscope and have been proven to be the location of bundles of specialized nerve fibers, blood vessels, and cells with special functions (i.e., mast cells, which release histamine). When stimulated by the acupuncture needle, these points send messages to the local tissues, spinal cord, and brain to influence the body’s pain response. This causes the release of endorphins and endogenous opiods (the body’s own morphine), which help block pain messages.

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Stimulation of these points also stimulates blood flow to nerves, joints, and organs to help maintain their function longer. One of the most beneficial aspects of acupuncture treatments in our senior pets is that acupuncture does not have any side effects.

How Your Pet May React to Treatment

Many clients do wonder, however, if their pet would allow acupuncture treatment. They do! Occasionally a specific acupuncture point might be sensitive if it is “active,” but overall needle insertion is painless. After the initial curiosity of the exam and treatment, animals will often curl up and sleep during the 10-30 minute sessions. After treatments, pet families will typically describe their pet as “very relaxed” to “groggy” for the rest of the day. Rest is generally recommended for a day or two after treatment. Acupuncture is a very portable treatment method and can be performed in a traditional veterinary hospital or in your home by a house-call veterinarian. Treatment at home may be much easier for large senior pets with arthritis pain and for cats who are easily stressed by a trip to the veterinary hospital. It may also be a more comfortable environment for the family to hold the pet during the sessions.

Length of Treatment and Result

Many pet families also want to know the length of treatment needed before they see noticeable results. The answer to this depends on a few variables. In general, the longer the disease has been occurring, the longer it will take to see an effect from acupuncture treatment. For chronic arthritis cases, I typically recommend treatment once per week for 4 weeks and then once every other week for 4 treatments. For many owners, they will notice an overall improvement in their pet sooner than this. For acute injuries (for example, a cruciate ligament rupture or a slipped intervertebral disc), results can be seen much more quickly. For these cases, I usually recommend once weekly treatment for 4 weeks before reassessing. Some of these very painful cases can be treated more frequently and could benefit from the use of electro-acupuncture, or electric stimulation of the acupuncture needles, for a stronger effect.

Where  to Get Treatment

Acupuncture can be a wonderful addition to the veterinarians “tool box,” especially for our senior pets. Acupuncture can be used as a primary treatment strategy when used alone or as a secondary treatment strategy, as an addition to other Eastern and Western treatment protocols. Not all veterinarians have studied acupuncture as it does requires post-doctoral training in both Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine and acupuncture techniques. We are lucky to have several practitioners in the Hampton Roads area. If you have a senior pet and think acupuncture may be a good addition to their treatment plan, please visit the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture’s website at for their “Find a Vet Acupuncturist” search to find a practitioner close to you!


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